One of the great treasures on this CD is Herbert Howells’ setting of the Sussex Mummers’ Carol ‘O Mortal Man’. This song was first collected by Lucy Broadwood in 1908. The liner-notes suggest that Howells’ realisation of this only surfaced in the last few years so has not come under close critical gaze. A realisation of this work was prepared by Christopher Palmer; however the present recording is a new edition prepared by Sam Hayes. He has made a number of revisions to Palmer’s score, including re-working the ending and proposing a text for one of the verses that Howells had scored but to which he had not added words. I am not quite sure why only three verses (2, 3, 6) were given out of the seven which were originally collected and published in English Traditional Songs and Carols. Finally, Howells’ original sketches are undated, however stylistic considerations suggest the work may be contemporaneous with the Four Anthems from 1941.
The piece is a worthy addition to the corpus of Herbert Howells’ music and deserves to be heard more often. There is a perfect balance between the orchestral parts and the choral writing that claims the listener’s attention.
There are plenty of alternative versions to Finzi’s Lo, The Full, Final Sacrifice, Howells’ Like as the Hart Desireth the Waterbrooks and Lennox Berkeley’s The Lord is my Shepherd and these are discussed in detail elsewhere. However, the Academy of Great St Mary’s gives a good account of all three under the direction of Sam Hayes.
The most interesting part of this new CD involves the two orchestral works by the English composer Adam Pounds. These are première recordings, although this is not mentioned on the track-listing. I am indebted to the liner-notes for information about these pieces.
Life Cycle first saw light of day in 1992 as a ‘dance’ movement. Pounds had originally conceived it as a short piece for chamber septet. In this incarnation, it was successfully performed complete with dancers at the Chelmsford Cathedral Festival. The composer decided to revise it and transcribed it for full orchestra. Apparently, this version included a part for synthesiser - thankfully ditched in the present edition. In 2010 he further revised Life Cycle and rewrote the opening bars. It is hardly surprising that the idea behind this work is a ‘life journey’ - birth, the joy of life, stress and finally death. Adam Pounds uses different musical media to portray these stages of being. For example the ‘joie de vivre’ is largely minimalistic: the ‘death’ scene is a ‘mirror image’ of the birth music. Although the liner-notes suggest that this is one of the composer’s most ‘experimental and abstract works’, there is little here to trouble all but the most conservative of musical tastes. That is not to say that the music lacks challenge or interest. Every bar is well conceived and the whole ‘tone poem’ is a worthy addition to the orchestral repertoire.
The other major new work is Pounds’ The Martyrdom of Latimer. It was commissioned by the Ely Sinfonia to celebrate their tenth anniversary in 2009. It was duly performed in Ely Cathedral. The composer gave me a brief overview of this work which is worthwhile quoting here: “‘The Martyrdom of Latimer’ explores the final days of Latimer’s life and his death at the stake. I have employed modal themes and liturgical ideas combined with strong rhythmic statements. The orchestra, which is fairly large, also employs four trumpet parts. Two of the players are to be sited in the gallery. The piece was started on March 23rd and took shape very quickly, being completed on the 15th May. I was asked to explore the concept of resurrection in the piece. To this end, I have designed a coda which employs material used earlier in the work that embodies Latimer’s character – some of it is based on the music of the Tudor composer Robert White. When this music returns it is extended and uses strong ‘open’ intervals. This is intended to reinforce the concept that in death, Latimer became more powerful and therefore ‘alive’.”
This is an impressive and ultimately moving work that justifies its title. This is a major symphonic poem that covers a wide range of emotional activity – from the profundity of Latimer’s death to the renewed life of the martyr. However if the listener does not want to provide the historical apparatus of the death of Thomas Latimer, it is perfectly possible to listen to this as a successful piece of abstract music. The musical language is much more conservative and traditional than Life Cycle, yet it is ultimately more satisfying and deeply moving.
Certainly, in both these works Adam Pounds proves himself to be an underrated master of the orchestra. He justifies the confidence that any pupil of Sir Lennox Berkeley would engender. It is no major criticism to suggest that both of these works demand a full professional recording.
The presentation of this CD is attractive. The cover features an attractive bronze sculpture on the front and a stained glass window depicting the great Thomas Latimer on the rear. The liner-notes are impressive and give all the necessary information. A little more on the Pounds pieces might well have been of interest. It is good that a list of all the performers is given, as I guess that many in this amateur choir and orchestra will be very proud of their achievement and will wish to have their involvement recorded for posterity. The sound recording process claims to be a method designed to allow the ‘music to be heard as it should and would be in a live performance, without the clinical sterility of a lot of modern studio recordings.’ Interestingly there is an apology for any extraneous noise such as birdsong, wind, venue noise, e.g. creaking timbers etc. However the producers believe that this adds to the ‘atmosphere of the recording.’
In spite of some problems with balance and instrumental and choral intonation which probably reflect the technical capabilities of the players, this is a well played disk that largely does justice to the music performed. I confess that it would not be my first choice for the Howells (Like as the Hart), the Berkeley and the Finzi, however, it is the only place that Adam Pounds’ two excellent works are to be heard. For these alone it is worth the price of purchase. And lastly, this may be the only currently available recording of Herbert Howells O Mortal Man.
Adam Pounds: Notes and News
The composer has told me that the above disc has been has been
well received and that he is now planning a new recording of
smaller – scale works which is planned for release next
He has given me notice of two important concerts in June that
will feature his music. On the 11th (7.30pm), he will be conducting
the Academy of Great St. Mary’s at the University Church,
Cambridge in a performance of the Enigma Variations by Elgar
and the programme will also include the first performance of
his Norfolk Seascape. This is a rhapsody for solo flute and
orchestra which the composer wrote for his wife, Dinah, who
will be the soloist. Pounds told me that ‘like most of
my music, the piece is programmatic and the opening represents
the coast at Thornham in its tranquillity and timeless beauty.
This is one of our favourite places.’ Thornham, for the
curious, is a few miles east of Hunstanton on the North Norfolk
Coast. There will be a second performance of the work on the
25th June at the Emmanuel United Reformed Church, Trumpington
Street, Cambridge (7.30pm) when he will be conducting a concert
that will include two choral pieces by Vaughan Williams –
the Serenade To Music and Toward The Unknown Region.
Finally, hot off the press: Adam Pound has just finished composing
a piece for voice, flute, viola, piano and percussion. The composition
is called Time and sets words by Blake, Shakespeare and Shelley.
This will be performed on July 14th (7.30pm) in Michaelhouse,
Trinity Street, Cambridge. The evening will also feature other
music and poetry readings on the subject of ‘time’.
Adam Pounds is not only a composer, but also a busy conductor.
He is currently planning for the new season of music performed
by Academy of Great St. Mary’s when he will be conducting
some great music including the magnificent Concerto for Orchestra
John France May 2011